The Star Wars Propaganda book is one of my favorite types of canon texts: a work that’s written in-universe, with all the biases and uncertainties that come along with it. These kind of works can be a fantastic world-building tool, showing not only new facets of the world’s history and culture, but also how people perceive those things. So, naturally, I bought the book, and as soon as it was delivered I plopped down on my couch and devoured it in an afternoon.
When I’d finished my first pass, though, I found myself surprisingly underwhelmed. I’d expected something that really expanded on the new canon of Star Wars, and while there were a handful of places where there was new information and world building, it still fell short of my expectations. My problem, one that I keep encountering in Star Wars in general, is a lack of imagination from the creators.
Star Wars is a galaxy-spanning fantasy setting, home to trillions of beings and billions of cultures. Why, then, with so much opportunity for creativity and ingenuity, does the book rely so heavily on references to real-world posters and advertising? Why not think about the kinds of propaganda that would need to be developed to appeal to such a vast audience as the SW galaxy? It could have been a lot more creative and imaginative, instead of staying so bound to real-world references.
Of course Star Wars, like any fantasy setting, is going to be inspired by real-world events–and in this case, real-world art styles. And Star Wars, especially the Original Trilogy, draws heavily from the Western narratives constructed around World War II, so some parallels are to be expected. But there’s a difference between inspiration and blatant copying. Are we really supposed to believe that artists in this totally alien setting with totally alien cultures would come up with a carbon copy of the famous “We Can Do It!” poster, featuring Princess Leia instead of Rosie? That particular example is one of the most infuriating for me, as it’s a reference to such a famous real-world image that it totally destroys my suspension of disbelief.
Another poster that relies far too heavily on a real-world reference is the Separatist “Deliver Us From Jedi Evil” image. The idea behind it, that the Separatists would depict the Jedi as uncaring and c
ontrolling, makes perfect sense. But the text is a clear reference to the Christian Lord’s Prayer, which ends with the line “and deliver us from evil.” Christianity does not exist in Star Wars, to the best of my knowledge, but that’s what the line is calling back to. It’s a reference included not for the in-universe audience, but for us, the readers. And again, it ruins the suspension of disbelief needed to pretend that this book was written for people in the Star Wars universe.
This is also my complaint with the pod-racing poster, which advertises the race that young Anakin Skywalker won in Phantom Menace. Why, in a book meant to catalogue art in a massive galactic society, would a poster for a race on a painfully remote backwater make the cut? Because it refers to an event that happened in the movies and thus has meaning and importance to Star Wars fans–even though it would likely be meaningless to the vast majority of people within the universe.
One piece in this style that falls especially flat is “Fly for Freedom,” a Rebellion poster featuring none other than Captain Hera Syndulla and Phoenix Squadron. Having Hera featured in the book and as a prominent member of the Rebellion is great, but what isn’t great is the artist behind this piece. It’s attributed to Sabine Wren, as are a couple other pieces in the book. Including Sabine as an artist isn’t a problem, and indeed, her other featured works are great examples of her brightly colored graffiti style.
The problem here is that this piece bears no resemblance to the rest of Sabine’s art. The accompanying text says that the image was originally made by Sabine as a personal gift to Hera, which makes the style mismatch even worse. It seems strange that Sabine, in making a gift to give to her friend, would create something that looks like any of the Rebellion’s propaganda artists could have produced instead of something bearing her personal touch. Perhaps one could argue that Hera wanted something in that style, but without context, the dissonance between this piece and the rest of Sabine’s work is jarring.
Those examples represent a broader problem with majority of the art in the book, which is that they don’t feel like Star Wars. The planets and cultures of Star Wars each have a unique design and feel: Tatooine’s sun-baked domes and battered machines, Naboo’s grand gardens and sweeping plazas, Coruscant’s neon lights and towering skyscrapers. Though there might not be a single, unified Star Wars aesthetic, the worlds depicted in this universe generally have a theme and a cohesion to them. The art in the propaganda book, for the most part, looks like it came from none of those worlds. It looks like it came from Earth.
To be fair, while I was generally underwhelmed by the book and the art, there were some pieces I really enjoyed. Examples of Sabine’s graffiti, including a defaced Imperial recruitment poster, are great Rebels references and make sense within the universe; Sabine’s starbird seems to have inspired the Rebel symbol, so there’s logic in highlighting her as an artist. There were also a couple Clone Wars-era posters that both fit within the universe and added some world building depth, such as “The Military Creation Act.” This poster shows the public’s perception of Jedi as guardians of the Republic, but also plays up the idea that the Republic’s only guardians are the Jedi–and the Jedi are not enough. It’s a subtle, layered design, and the description builds up a little more of the Star Wars universe.
And of course, there’s the magnificent Poe Dameron recruitment poster, made for the Resistance as a joke by a pilot named Yolo. While the poster–and the name of its artist–are again aimed at making the real-world readership laugh, it also makes sense within the universe. An artistically inclined pilot makes fun of his popular, handsome friend by mocking up a recruitment poster… which then gets adopted by the Resistance. It’s believable that this could happen in Star Wars.
Ultimately, that’s my biggest complaint with the Propaganda book: much of it doesn’t feel like it believably came from the setting. It’s more concerned with referencing real-world art styles, ads, and propaganda, and not enough with building up the fictional world. Having only one style of propaganda makes sense coming from the notably racist Empire, but for the Republic, Rebellion, and Resistance, why not show examples of how messages have to be changed to appeal to a wide variety of cultures? Why not attempt to develop art that looks like it could have come from some of those cultures, instead of replicating a very narrow selection of real-world styles? Star Wars is a vast universe with incredible creative potential, and it’s a disservice to the settings and the fans to stay so boxed in.
When Rhi isn’t playing Star Wars make-believe with her friends, she writes fanfic, plays a lot of games, and hoards polyhedral dice. For out of context quotes from her tabletop RPGs, follow her twitter @rhiannon42.